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Clouded coherence (hindu)

Given India’s recent foreign policy fluidity, the sustainability of its SCO membership is in doubt

The phrase “Where you stand depends on where you sit”, also called ‘Miles’s Law’, was coined by Rufus Miles, an American bureaucrat who served as Assistant Secretary to three U.S. Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), essentially to describe how one’s policy changes according to one’s location and the company one keeps.

As India takes its place as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, many are wondering just ‘where’ Indian foreign policy stands on the basis of where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is sitting, along with Russia, China, Central Asian states and Pakistan (which is also being admitted this year).

An SCO membership has many obvious advantages: being a part of a major security coalition in Asia, with easy access to the energy-rich ‘stans’, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It is an important forum on counter-terrorism cooperation, connectivity, and on resolving the situation in Afghanistan. Membership may thus have seemed a good idea when India first took observer status in 2005, and when it applied for full member status in 2014 — but in 2017 so much has changed in India’s foreign policy posture that the sustainability of its SCO membership is in doubt.

Contradiction in positions

To begin with, there is a basic contradiction between India’s stand last month on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) and the SCO’s. In a strongly worded statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said not only does India have “sovereignty” issues over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) part of the B&R, it has environmental worries and concerns over the “unsustainable debt burden” for smaller countries, as well as over the lack of transparency from China.

However, all SCO members are a part of B&R and endorse it. In 2015, SCO heads of government in Zhengzhou issued a joint statement fully supporting the B&R (then called Silk Road Economic Belt) as the SCO’s vehicle for regional economic cooperation. It remains to be seen how far Mr. Modi would be able to drive India’s point on sovereignty home, given that not just China, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are keen to join the CPEC too.

Second, the SCO is a security alliance, not a cultural or geographically based coalition, and its charter in 2001 specifies confidence-building in “military fields”. Subsequent statements of the SCO, including at Astana in 2005, commit them to “jointly preserving regional peace, security and stability; and establishing a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order”.

The ‘new order’ is a direct reference to a compact led by Russia and China, clearly aimed at the West. As a result, the SCO has been often called the “Anti-NATO”, meant to counterbalance U.S. and Europe power structures. It would seem incongruous to reconcile this with India’s close military ties with the U.S. today, or Mr. Modi’s stated objective last week during his Europe tour of a closer strategic partnership with the EU to ensure “rule-based international order”, and casts doubt over which way India would turn if there were to be an actual conflict, say, between Russia and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in the Balkans, or China and the U.S. trilateral in the South China Sea today. The SCO executive speaks of counter-terror cooperation as a part of its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), with joint exercises among member states, while also being guided by the “Shanghai spirit” of good-neighbourliness. Again, this would square badly with India’s objective of “exposing” Pakistan’s cross-border terror policy, and derail any progress in the manner India-Pakistan tensions finished off the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) process.

If anything, India’s foreign policy fluidity seems part of a pattern in the past few months, possibly triggered by insecurities over the erratic behaviour of the new U.S. administration. For example, after years of encouraging “middle-power” coalitions in the Indo-Pacific, the government made an about-turn recently, rejecting Australia’s request to join Malabar naval exercises with Japan, India and the U.S. India’s West Asia policy of “engaging all” included inviting the leaders of arch-rivals Cyprus and Turkey to Delhi in the same week in April, but when Mr. Modi heads to Israel in July, he will reportedly not visit the Palestinian side. And after making the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership a singular goal last year, the MEA appears to have put its membership bid on a slow burner until China is convinced, a clear reversal from previous strategy.

At a time of flux across the world fuelled by America’s capriciousness, West Asia’s internal combustion, China’s aggression and Russian inscrutability, India is certainly well poised to be a democratic, dependable leader of an alternative global coalition. The government must, however, be more sure-footed and clear of its own principles of engagement, rather than of ‘where it stands’ being guided by ‘where it sits’ or more precisely, where the PM lands next.


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